by Jim Martin·

kymograph (‘wave writer’): a device that produces traces on a piece of smoked paper clamped onto a rotating drum, a mechanically amplified graphical representation of spatial position over time, such as the rise and fall of a worm’s blood vessel as pulses of blood travel through it. Invented by Carl Ludwig in the mid-1800’s, it consists of a revolving drum wrapped with a sheet of smoked paper on which a stylus connected to the tissue being measured moves up and down, recording changes of motion. (Adapted from Turtles, all the way down: A scrapbook about various hacks and obscure topics.

clear grey skin
a touch of blue
the blade reaches deep
line unfolds
reveals skin has edges
and depth
beneath the line
aortic arches pulse
beat out the rhythm
of life
determined to live
to live
bursts from the wound
an emotional visual
blow to my mind
my soul
can I
because I teach
sacrifice this life
so a line may be scratched
on a piece of smoked paper

Early in my teaching career, I was demonstrating how to set up a chymograph to measure the pulse rate of blood as it was pumped through an angle worm’s dorsal aorta. The set up was simple, but had to be done with great care. Students in the lab class would then introduce their worms to water baths at various temperatures and measure the worms’ response to these environments via changes in pulse rate.

I made the incision along the worm’s long back, exposing the pulsing aortic arches, five blood vessels that pumped blood from the long ventral vein up to the dorsal aorta. These arches perform the same function as our heart, and may represent an ancient step in the ultimate development of the mammalian heart.

As the pulsing arches were exposed, I saw the worm very clearly, not as Lumbricus terrestris, the common angle worm, but as a living being, determined to continue to live at any cost; I saw life itself, and its right to its own existence, and remarked on this to the class. The beauty and persistence of life. An odd comment from a zoology teacher who was showing students how to kill an animal to learn about it.

My life took an unexpected turn at that moment; both my teaching and my personal life. At the time, I was in the early stages of starting to deal with my experiences in the Gulf of Tonkin, where I learned that some human lives were sacrosanct, others were not. I asked then, and still do now, ‘How does a life, valued and valuable, just and humane where it lives, become valueless and inhumane to those who live elsewhere?’ Is there some connection between this human phenomenon and how conceptions of deities and heavens change with changes in time, culture, and circumstances? Experiencing the worm, I began a long transition in my view of life.

The analog line the worm’s pulse traced on the chymograph’s slowly rotating smoked paper was thin and eloquent, instructive and inspiring; its own cognitive beauty. The ‘heart’ was marking its own course, its own activity, its own life and demise. Surely this is a worthy thing to contemplate, reflect upon, and to refocus one’s thoughts and beliefs about life on Earth.

The very first thing that wavering line did was to expand my view of life, to consider it to be more than the lives of humans, their worth and rights. I had a clear cognitive understanding of the evolution of life from the components of cells to cells to multicellular life, but had never personally considered the thought that these lives of all creatures were lived, that they persisted until they could persist no more. My view now began to include the right of all living things to their lives, including human living things.

Because we need to eat, the facts of ecology and nutrition were a stumbling block for awhile, until I realized that all things are in the process of becoming other things. They have to do this in order to live; a paradox built right into the fact of life on Earth.

One thing has seemed to me to separate how humans go about this business of living from the way of all other life. Each living and non-living thing in every ecosystem goes about its work with integrity. They don’t cheat, so, together, they produce a remarkably efficient and effective economy. We don’t exercise this ethical integrity, and create endless problems for the rest of life on Earth. Confucius spoke the only realistic solution to this human dilemma when he suggested we know ourselves, our inner selves, and remain true to that person; doing this he knew we would learn we should treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves. And so, I began to concentrate on learning to do this, to know myself and to know others; not their externals, but the person deep within.

That person is difficult to miss once you’ve learned to locate it. Eventually, you recognize patterns, and come to the certain understanding that we’re all people, just people. That sets everything straight.

I began to appreciate the relevance of Dryas’ [the author’s late wife — ED.] inclusive spirituality, her sense of the personal and spiritual connection among all living things. The scientist in me needed mechanisms, and continued to look for them, but I could not deny the strength and universal relevance of the spirit that I began to perceive which pervaded all living beings. And I began a search for how humans have perceived this during all of their history in Earth; I continue to try to make sense of our search for spirituality and the traps that are built into being human which impede and disrupt that search. Since we can never know for certain, we are all searchers.

My teaching began to organize itself so that I and my students could observe intact organisms while doing them little or no harm. For instance, you can hold an angle worm still (try it on a moist paper towel) and count the pulses as each bolus (blob) of blood moves down the dorsal aorta. Time them or count how many there are per minute. This provided information about the worm’s response to temperature as useful as that gained from the chymograph. After all was done, the worm went out into the yard. The effect of this change in direction was to focus my students on the organism they were studying, and not on the instruments they might use to make their observations. They began to notice behaviors and other relevant phenomena associated with the environmental perturbations they introduced their subjects to. And I, in turn, turned my focus to the students’ behaviors and relevant phenomena while they went about their work and their thinking. In the end, I learned more from them than I ever did in my education and inservice coursework.

I discovered that organizing my delivery so that students come into my classroom to become scientists did more to involve and invest them in their educations, and empower them as persons, than coming in to learn about science, and being tested on it, ever did. They began to focus on following up on the needs-to-know that their inquiries generated, rather than getting the right answer, then forgetting immediately after the test. And so they carried the weight of their learning, while I busied myself getting reference works on the shelves, providing lab particulars they needed, and so forth. My lectures, which were good ones, were reduced to small mini-lectures, often delivered at a lab table, in response to questions students posed. I recall one sunny afternoon, walking through the lab as the class worked away, wondering what I had done to my stable world of lecture, lab, exam.

And so where does this take me in responding to my original concern about my right to take a life so that a line may be scratched. If I truly respect all life, can I sacrifice an animal’s life in order to know more about it? How about a plant’s life? A paramecium’s? Are there circumstances where this is ethically permissible? I’m not an ethecist, but I think that any time my only resort is to use a life to learn what may be applied to the benefit of others, I must look upon it as a sacrifice and ensure that whatever is done is humane, is as it would be done with a human.

Fortunately, we managed to eliminate these sacrifices in my curricula without short-changing my students’ understandings about the phenomena they studied. In the process, I’ve learned to find the person behind the outward appearances we learn to attend to, the inner light that shines in each of us, that holds our hopes and aspirations, that wants to be recognized and appreciated, and which recognizes and appreciates others.

I’m still working on the insight an angle worm gave me forty years ago. I know from my personal experience that it does no harm to communicate directly with the person who lives at the heart of each of us. And that it usually helps us all relax and appreciate one another’s company on the road we all travel. Together, whether we acknowledge it or not.

When next you see an angle worm, look carefully on its back for a long, dark line. Observe it carefully, and you’ll see either a recognizable pulse, or the line will fade and reappear on a regular schedule. When you see it, you’ll know that its aortic arches are doing exactly what your heart is doing for you. And for the rest of us.